Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

The sudden appearance and rapid spread of the coronavirus is an unsettling reminder of how chaotic and uncertain the world can be. Seemingly out of the blue, this new and deadly virus is upending life across the globe — the latest reports identify almost 50 countries that have confirmed cases of infection.

In China, the epicenter of the outbreak, manufacturing, construction, and other economic activities have dramatically slowed down and even come to a halt, while air travel in the country has decreased by 70 percent. As a result, China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past three weeks have declined by 25 percent.

A significant majority of American voters now support the Green New Deal.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that a similar unraveling of daily life is what the climate emergency has in store for us. The sense of foreboding is palpable. The fragility of modern life, its dependence on complex webs of supply chains, intricate social systems, infrastructure, and technology: all of it is up for grabs as we confront an epic series of disasters.

“Not all that long ago,” David Wallace-Wells observed this week, “climate change was a story unfolding only in the future tense.” Now, though, it has come “roaring into the present with a terrifying fury.” The incineration of one quarter of Australia’s forests in a single fire season underscores his point.

The ravages of climate destabilization, of course, are not confined to environmental destruction. Rising sea levels, extended droughts, flash floods, and wild fires are perhaps its most obvious manifestations. But less visible developments such as malaria, malnutrition, and heat stress will just as surely cause death and misery for millions of people as the climate crisis accelerates. If only global warming could inspire the kind of collective action that our fear of epidemics does.

More than ever, we need to remember that our fates as individuals and nations are intertwined. The poorest countries, as well as the most marginalized communities in the developed world, will continue to find themselves exposed disproportionately to the havoc that is underway. Just as doctors and nurses are rushing forward into the fray to care for patients struck down by COVID-19, the more fortunate among us need to act with a keen awareness that we are all in this together. It’s not just a question of morality; the survival of human civilization depends on it. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Greenland and the Climate Emergency

One of the signature features of our times is the dramatic disconnect between the speed with which the climate emergency is unfurling, on the one hand, and our ability to integrate this reality into our day-to-day life, on the other. In an article earlier this summer, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), reflected on what he called the “phenomenon of cascading climate impacts.”

An iceberg off the Greenland coast this summer. Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“How many natural disasters does it take to qualify as biblical, or apocalyptic, or at least to make us understand that we are living not through a bad week, or a bad year, but an unraveling climate system in which so much of what we take for granted as permanent features of the built environment may be turned into flotsam and jetsam by unprecedented weather?” he asked.

His haunting question came to mind this month as I read one report after another about the record ice melt in Greenland. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer something like 440 billion tons of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet.

In just five days from July 31 to August 3, more than 58 billion tons melted from the surface of the world’s largest island, 40 billion tons more than average for this time of year. That’s not taking into account the huge ice chunks breaking off into the ocean or warm water attacking the glaciers from below.

Just since the 1990s, Greenland’s rate of ice loss has increased from 41 gigatons per year to 286 gigatons per year during the period from 2010 to 2018. A recent study found that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut significantly in the next decade or two, Greenland could contribute up to two feet of global sea level rise by 2100.

How does one even begin to comprehend the enormity of this catastrophe?

Wallace-Wells suggests that our capacity for denial and compartmentalization may be such that we actually never come to grips with what we are doing and the threat that it poses to our very existence. Instead, we simply incorporate each new horrifying event into a “new normal” and move on. Even more disconcerting, Wallace-Wells thinks we may begin to find ourselves normalizing ” clear and terrifying patterns,” not just single instances of extreme weather events and climate disasters such as the India heat wave in June or the vast, ongoing fires in the Amazon.

At that point, obviously, our doom will be sealed. We must do everything possible, then, to keep reminding ourselves that nothing about what is happening to our climate and its impacts is normal. We must keep talking with each other and finding ways to act collectively that push back against any of this from becoming normal.

As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has called for a global climate strike on September 20, reminds us, ” Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this.”